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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

On New Jersey's failed Race to the Top application - cue the Internationale

So New Jersey isn’t getting a Race to the Top grant, and there is much general wailing and gnashing of teeth over an error on the application that caused the state to lose a few points - an error which seemingly made the difference between winning and losing. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, read about it here.)

Yeah, it was an inexcusable screw-up - and an incredibly ironic one. I mean, people filling out nitpicky forms and applications and - oh, say, test answer sheets - ought to be more careful than that, right? These things are important! A $400 million education grant  could hang in the balance! Or a teacher’s merit pay - right, Chris Christie, oh great proponent of test-score-based teacher evaluations?

Which brings me to my real point: As entertaining as it is to watch Trenton chasing its own tail in its eagerness to lay blame for this debacle (Schundler! Christie! Some outside contractor who was handling the whole thing for us! Because we all know that the private sector is more efficient and reliable, right?), the hysteria is obscuring the actual educational issues raised by the whole Race to the Top grant program and the application New Jersey submitted.

Rather than re-examine the education priorities of their predecessors, the Obama administration has simply picked up the same baton and kept running in the same direction, only with even more vigor. Standardized testing, teacher merit pay, privatization via charter schools - it’s all in there. You want to win a chunk of the Race to the Top money, you’ve got to prove that your state is going to be front and center in adopting these particular education reforms. This, despite the evidence that much of it doesn’t work especially well while draining resources from the existing public education system.

Case in point: Merit pay. We’re talking about handing out bonus checks to teachers on the basis of their students’ standardized test scores. Never mind that this is, as they say in the medical biz, an off-label use for standardized testing. Never mind that a school may not be the place where you want to disrupt team spirit by having individuals fight over a pot of gold. Never mind that schools in poor areas tend to produce lousy test scores while schools in affluent areas tend to produce high test scores. Never mind that, when the Commie pinko teacher’s union holds out for more money for people who work hard, they’re evil, but when right-wing Republicans propose higher pay as an individual incentive, it is capitalistically good and right. And never mind that respected experts in the field warn that test-score-based teacher evaluations are a crock. (If you haven’t read about the Los Angeles Times’ little foray into this area, I’ll throw another link at you.)

Anyway, back to New Jersey’s Race to the Top application. Lost in all the “clerical error” brouhaha is the fact that state education commissioner Bret Schundler, knowing that the Race to the Top program rewards buy-in from teachers, negotiated a compromise on merit pay with the NJEA (or, as the media likes to say over and over, “the powerful teacher’s union"). Much to my frustration, that compromise is repeatedly referred to in news coverage as a weak version of Christie’s more robust reforms - in other words, Christie’s own propaganda is being reported as accepted reality. Just a few days before the Race to the Top application was due, Christie tossed the version that contained the compromises Schundler and the NJEA negotiated and insisted that this own version be submitted instead. Somehow (and at this point, who cares how exactly?), in the hectic process that followed, the fact that the wrong year’s budget data was included in the application was missed, and that’s where the infamous clerical area comes in.

So what was in that weak, watered-down compromise on merit pay? This is from the Star-Ledger:

According to the state’s latest application, student achievement will account for 50 percent — not 51 percent, as originally proposed — of a teacher’s evaluation and include not just test scores, but other measures of learning such as portfolios of students’ work, NJEA spokeswoman Dawn Hiltner said.
The original application included a "bonus pool" of money from the state for strong teachers. The funds would be split between teachers or teacher teams and their schools.
The new application proposes a merit pay pilot program that districts could opt to join. Instead of individual merit pay for teachers, half the money awarded by the state as bonuses would be used for schoolwide programs, such as technology upgrades or teacher training, Hiltner said.
A school’s staff would decide how to award the rest of the money. It could go to individual teachers, or divided among the entire staff, or used for a school program, Hiltner said.
"Our feeling on merit pay is, teaching is a collaborative effort," Hiltner said. "This helps people in schools work together, instead of pitting teachers against each other because they are vying for a bonus."

Real Commie pinko stuff, right? I mean, all this talk about sharing and training and collaboration, right?

So here’s my chuckle of the day. I was curious to see what Commie pinkos other than that infamous, obstructionist bunch at the NJEA might subscribe to this idea of team bonuses, so I googled “team bonus pay.” The second result? An article from the Federal Times, a publication for managers in the federal government. The article is written by one David M. Fisher, director of another infamous Commie pinko organization: the Defense Department's Business Transformation Agency.

Here’s what he has to say on the subject:
While the GS [General Schedule] system also provides some incentives for outstanding performance via annual bonuses, this is the area in which the best of NSPS [National Security Personnel System] should be employed within the GS system. There is a way to make this bonus portion of compensation both objective and transparent, while also gaining added benefits by incentivizing entire teams to achieve shared objectives.
We use this sort of incentivizing bonus system at the Business Transformation Agency, where we have established quantifiable metrics that measure the agency's performance as a whole. The size of our agency bonus pool is directly tied to our collective performance against those goals.
Specifically, we establish measurable agencywide targets at the beginning of the year, focusing on our highest-priority initiatives. Our average score against these targets at the end of the year determines the size of our bonus pool.
The fact that these are shared targets that require collaboration further focuses behavior not only on individual performance, but also on working as a team to generate desired results. If we perform well collectively, we are rewarded collectively. If we don't, then this portion of our compensation falls. Instead of "hidden" pay pools where lack of trust fueled discontent with NSPS, this approach is transparent with metrics reported every month. Pay pools are replaced by bonus pools that identify performance targets and participants, which could be an entire agency, a program, a unit — whatever grouping makes most sense for a collection of shared, measurable objectives.

Yep, the weak, watered-down compromise struck between that ratfink Schundler and those Commie pinkos at the NJEA looks remarkably like the system in use at another infamous Commie pinko organization - the Department of Defense.

And so, let us wave the Stars and Stripes proudly, hum the Internationale, and sing the praises of that all-American institution - collectivism.

Take that, Christie.

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